Commentary: Santorum isn't the only one needing Puerto Rico history lessons

The Fort Worth Star-TelegramMarch 20, 2012 

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum's brief island hop to Puerto Rico last week didn't turn out well for the former Pennsylvania senator.

The photo snapped by a tourist of a shirtless Santorum catching some Caribbean sunshine between official events was less than flattering but hardly the kind of thing that would crater an island primary. Citing a fictitious requirement about the local government's need to mandate that residents speak English before Puerto Rico could become a U.S. state -- that'll do it.

Santorum compounded his gaffe by calling the U.S. commonwealth a "Spanish-speaking country." He tanked Sunday. Mitt Romney put Puerto Rico's 20 delegates to the GOP nominating convention in his win column.

Puerto Rican voters won't cast individual ballots in the Nov. 6 presidential contest, but they will weigh in that day on the latest referendum in their history to address the island's political status.

Puerto Rico went from being a Spanish colony to a U.S. territory as a result of the Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish-American War in 1898. Two years later, Congress instituted civil government under the Foraker Act, and free commerce between the island and United States was legalized.

Although President Theodore Roosevelt recommended in a speech to the Puerto Rican Congress in 1906 that islanders should become U.S. citizens, it wasn't until President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones Act in 1917 that statutory citizenship was granted -- meaning that what Congress giveth, Congress may taketh away.

That changed with the 1940 U.S. Nationality Act, which became effective in 1941 and was ratified by the Nationality Law in 1952. All persons born in Puerto Rico after that date are considered U.S. citizens and, therefore, their U.S. citizenship is protected under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

In 1951, Puerto Ricans voted overwhelmingly in favor of U.S. commonwealth status. In 1967, 60 percent of referendum voters backed a continuation of the commonwealth.

In 1993 -- the year that Puerto Rican Law No. 1 declared Spanish and English as official languages -- nearly 49 percent of voters sided with continuing the U.S. commonwealth status; more than 46 percent wanted statehood.

A nonbinding referendum in 1998 offered voters five choices: commonwealth, statehood, independence, a free association with the United States or none of the above. More than 46 percent wanted to become a state; more than 50 percent wanted "none of the above."

Island voters will have two questions on the Nov. 6 ballot: Do you want to change the status or remain a commonwealth; and do you prefer statehood, independence or sovereign free association?

Of course, the vote changes nothing. The U.S. Congress and president hold the key to Puerto Rico's future. Romney has said he'll support the statehood option if that's what Puerto Ricans want.

Santorum's faulty recall of the linguistic legalities of statehood ignores Puerto Rico's role in an important provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that deals with language. In his defense, Santorum isn't the only person who's confused.

After recent editorials about Texas' voter ID law, a reader recommended that the paper "examine Section 4(e)-1 which includes the almost unbelievable language -- 'the right to vote shall not be conditioned on the ability to speak, read, write or understand any matter in the English language.'

"I think these words ushered in the phenomena of ballots in languages other than English, never mind how any person with such awesome limitations could cast an informed vote," the reader's e-mail said.

The language is far from unbelievable when put in context of protecting the voting rights of American citizens.

Section 4(e) of the VRA prohibits an English-language literacy requirement for any American citizen who successfully completes the sixth grade in any accredited, American-flag school that teaches in a language other than English from being denied the right to vote because of inability to read, write or understand English. According to the Congressional Research Service, this provision "was intended to protect the half-million Puerto Ricans of voting age residing in New York City who had been educated in American schools in Puerto Rico where classroom instruction was entirely in Spanish (as contrasted with bilingual schools). Many could not meet the English-literacy requirement for voting in New York."

The largest migration of Puerto Ricans to the U.S. mainland was in 1953, with almost 70,000 emigrating, mostly to New York, New Jersey and Florida. Regardless of the language they spoke, they were U.S. citizens before they hit the shore.

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